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After starting over, UMBC defender Marquez Fernandez is nearing top

UMBC defender Marquez Fernandez has made second-team All-America East in each of his two seasons with the Retrievers.
UMBC defender Marquez Fernandez has made second-team All-America East in each of his two seasons with the Retrievers. (Courtesy of UMBC)

In the winter of his discontent, Marquez Fernandez clung to a blanket of stress. He found no comfort. For as the Maryland men's soccer team's 2012 season spilled into December and a College Cup appearance, what had led him to College Park — talent, expectations, pressure — was now pushing him out.

An odd thing, having to reconcile the burning desire to win a national championship with the realization that a career had been stopped cold. The former McDonogh star had come to Maryland in 2010 with All-America honors and a stress fracture caused by overplaying. Such was his talent on the field; such was his dedication to the sport. But happiness? Even while the NCAA crown drew closer with each postseason win, happiness seemed as elusive as playing time.

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When Fernandez decided his Terps career was over, he said, it was "weird," because playing defense became fun again. When he decided his Terps career was over, about two weeks before the Terps' season was over, their starting defense left in tatters by a Georgetown attack that scored four goals and won in penalty kicks, he said he was "starting over" — and that it would have to be at UMBC.

"It was like this blanket of stress was gone. I had maybe the best week or two of practice [at Maryland] that I've had the whole time I was there," Fernandez, a senior, said inside the UMBC Stadium complex Tuesday. His Retrievers coaching staff was at a news conference in a nearby room, talking about how a team of cast-offs and underdogs had made it to face No. 16 seed Virginia in Friday's NCAA tournament semifinals in Cary, N.C. "I was playing freely."

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It was no surprise that the Retrievers wanted him to transfer, because coach Pete Caringi wanted him coming out of high school, too. Problem was, so did pretty much every other program in the nation.

As a freshman at powerhouse McDonogh, he started. As a sophomore, he knew top colleges wanted him. As a junior, he earned Baltimore Sun All-Metro Player of the Year honors after scoring 10 goals and leading 16 shutouts. As a senior, he was named a first-team ESPN Rise All-American and, for a second time, Gatorade Maryland Boys Soccer Player of the Year.

Fernandez was unique, a "defender who helped create offense," said Sheldon Shealer, TopDrawerSoccer.com's senior high schools editor and a Frederick resident who covered Fernandez while at ESPN Rise. "On some level, they will be more beneficial than your standard sweeper just because they can do more with the ball and they can make things happen further upfield, as opposed to just cleaning stuff up."

The spring before his freshman season at Maryland, he went to Carson, Calif., for under-18 U.S. men's national team training camp. As he played, Fernandez developed a stress fracture in his leg. He had waited out another painful injury, shinsplints, and would do so again. When it healed, he played. Then another injury, and more time off.

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Terps coach Sasho Cirovski, who in an earlier news release welcoming his recruiting class said Fernandez "will have an immediate impact in our program," suggested he redshirt his freshman season. Fernandez assented.

"It wasn't pretty. It was hard," Fernandez said. "It was definitely something I wasn't used to, going into a program and not being the guy in the back, the initial starter who could help the team get wins, get shutouts."

The first start of his redshirt freshman season was a loss, 2-1 to Boston College in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals. The last start of his freshman season was also a loss, 4-2 to Louisville in the NCAA tournament's third round. The Terps were expected to win both.

Fernandez started just once more at Maryland, and in a program where starting defenders hold on to their spots like Supreme Court justices, he appeared in fewer games his sophomore year than anyone on the team.

"When I transferred to UMBC" in 2011, said former McDonogh and North Carolina State midfielder Mamadou Kansaye, a former teammate of Fernandez's, "I … realized that he wasn't playing as much as he should have been at Maryland."

When Kansaye was 11, the two had battled in club soccer. He said Fernandez was "always something special," and his father, impressed, asked Kansaye to consider joining Fernandez's Baltimore Bays club. Which, translated, of course meant: If you can't beat him, join him. From age 12, through multiple national championships and until the end of high school, they played together.

"Thinking back on it," Kansaye said, "it was probably the best career move I made."

Not long after the Georgetown loss, Fernandez told the Maryland coaches he was leaving the program, then texted his old friend with a question that must have seemed like an echo. "You've got a spot for me over there?" he recalled asking Kansaye. "And he was like: 'It just so happens we have a senior center back on his way out.' "

Fernandez made the 30-minute trip up Interstate 95 to Catonsville. He started to smile more and play more. Practices earlier in his college career were "annoying;" now they were like old times, like he was "back on the playground again," Kansaye said. Fernandez was named second-team All-America East Conference as a junior and again this year. In his two seasons paired centrally with All-America defender Oumar Ballo (Archbishop Curley) as a Retrievers starter, UMBC trails only Coastal Carolina for most wins in the country.

"Marquez is playing at a level as good as any in the country," Caringi said.

Before a shutout win over Louisville and a shootout win over Creighton in the NCAA tournament, Fernandez had to return to College Park for one last game at Ludwig Field. As he waited for the Nov. 23 second-round showdown to begin, he half-expected feelings that never came: Uneasiness about facing Maryland friends he had played alongside and left. Nervousness about stopping a team that reached the NCAA final in its first year without him and expected to go all the way this time around. In their place arrived the certainty of a tough decision and the euphoria of a 1-0 upset win.

"It's weird. I was less nervous playing against them at that field than when I was actually wearing the jersey of Maryland playing there," he said. "I don't know why. It's just how it is. … I felt more comfortable and confident in my decision of coming here. And there were no more what-ifs."

Except, maybe, the big one: What if Fernandez and the Retrievers can do what he could not at Maryland? What if, two winters after starting over, he finishes on top?

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